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Goodwill fades as parties try to gain advantage

By Liam Clarke

Published 07/09/2015

Northern Ireland politics have run out of goodwill - we are now depending on self-interest to pull the parties into line.

That much became clear to me talking to DUP and Sinn Fein contacts over the past week. Neither party wants to help the other or to make compromises to do so.

It is fairly evident that there is internal tension within the DUP which is limiting Peter Robinson's room for manoeuvre. Suggest that to the average republican that Robinson needs a dig out to keep government going and you get snorts of derision.

They remember being asked to "save Dave" when David Trimble, the former UUP First Minister, was facing far greater internal problems, including open rebellion by MPs, than Mr Robinson. At that stage Sinn Fein calculated that giving Mr Trimble quite what he wanted on decommissioning and other issues would simply strengthen the hands of his hardliners to demand more.

They let Mr Trimble swing and the UUP was eclipsed by the DUP. The difference back then was that Sinn Fein had calculated they could do a deal with Ian Paisley if the DUP overtook Trimble's party. That turned out to be correct but the arrangement is now falling apart - how much slack will they be prepared to cut Mr Robinson to try and preserve a fractious partnership?

Even if they don't feel they owe the DUP a thing there are selfish reasons for Sinn Fein not to walk. First of all the current leadership successfully argued for an end to the IRA campaign and said that this offered a better way forward. Scuttling now would look like an admission of failure, not to mention an inability to take decisions in government. A northern crisis caused by Sinn Fein walking out would not be a good backdrop for next May's Irish general election.

So what lies behind Martin McGuinness' mantra that it would be a "huge mistake" for Westminster to impose welfare changes over Stormont's head? There is not much he could do except walk away and that would look weak.

Is this threat, which he has been making since May, not like the threat Shakespeare's King Lear made to his rebellious daughters in a moment of impotent rage? "I will have such revenges on you both/ ... What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be/ The terrors of the earth".

Like Lear, Sinn Fein would probably have to take change on the chin, effectively to do a Syriza and make the best of the situation. They can still modify the changes through a special fund set up by Stormont.

Ms Villiers has also promised money to deal with the past and loans to allow the public sector voluntary exit scheme. Stormont would be mad to reject these offers, which will put an extra £2bn into our economy, even if it is mostly loans. The two governments are prepared to set up a new Monitoring Commission to report on the paramilitary ceasefires and give an assessment of the McGuigan murder. Could the DUP be the ones to walk? It has eight seats in the Commons and one in Europe. That would sustain the party financially if Stormont, and all the jobs it provides across the province, were scrapped. The UUP, the SDLP and Alliance feel a tighter squeeze.

Mr Robinson is also aware that the institutions could not be quickly returned because the DUP would demand changes. It would be a renegotiation over several years and in the meantime there would be direct rule with increased Irish government participation.

Renegotiation will have to take place at some point, the present problems will recur if the system remains unreformed, but it is better to keep Stormont going with a balanced budget and then reform it.

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